Delkin this week has announced the US$70 USB Bridge, a device that takes the place of a host computer and, as the name implies, acts as a bridge between two USB devices.
The AA-battery powered device supports multiple USB device protocols, include Mass Storage and PTP (Picture Transfer Protocol), which means it can communicate with, and transfer data to and from, a range of digital SLR cameras, card readers, CD-writers and portable digital music players (including Apple's iPod).
We've been working with a prototype unit of the USB Bridge this week, and while we're not sure yet of the utility of the device, we can absolutely attest to its coolness. It's a great idea, now we just have to figure out exactly if or how it can be deployed in our digital photography workflow.
Here's what we've been able to make the USB Bridge do so far:
- Transfer photos from a CompactFlash card in a Nikon D70 (set to Mass Storage in its USB menu) via its USB port to a FAT32-formatted 40GB drive inside an OWC Mercury On-The-Go FireWire/USB enclosure. We've also been able to transfer photos from the same camera, as well as the D2H, to a Secure Digital card in the Delkin Reader-29 card reader (though of course there isn't much practical application for this!).
- Write photos from a CompactFlash card in a Nikon D2H (set to Mass Storage in its USB menu) to a CD-RW disc inside an aging QPS Que 16x CD writer. CD's written through the USB Bridge are in ISO 9660 format, which is readable across both Mac and PC platforms. Multiple writing sessions on a single disc are said to be possible, though we haven't attempted this, up to the limit of the capacity of the disc.
- Transfer photos from one CompactFlash card to another, with various brands and models of card readers on either side of the USB Bridge. We've encountered only one incompatible reader so far: a Lexar USB 2.0 Multi-Card reader (running an older version of firmware in the reader).
Delkin USB Bridge
We managed the above feats with nothing more than a few presses of the power, transfer and verify buttons on the unit. The twin LEDs on top of the USB Bridge appear to provide a reliable method of interpreting its status, while most of the USB devices we've connected to it give a visual indication of a working connection (ie the D2H's card access light blinks while the top LCD displays PC). We've prepped a quick video showing a prototype USB Bridge in action.
The only limitation we've encountered so far in the design of the USB Bridge is its use of Full Speed USB 1.1 instead of the much-faster High Speed USB 2.0. This shouldn't hamper compatibility of USB 2.0 devices with the USB Bridge, but it will limit the speed at which data travels through it. For example, transferring about 345MB of RAW+JPEG photos from a Sandisk Extreme 512MB CompactFlash card inside a Nikon D2H to a Sandisk Extreme 512MB SD card inside a Delkin Reader-29 takes just over 10 minutes, or 575K/sec. The same transfer to a Mac G5/Dual 2.0 GHz (via one of its USB 2.0 ports) running OS X 10.3.3 takes 2 minutes and 13 seconds, or 2659K/sec.
What we haven't yet had an opportunity to evaluate is the transfer of photos from a USB digital SLR or card reader to Apple's iPod. With the use of the iPod's FireWire + USB 2.0 accessory cable (the same cable required to use the iPod with a Windows computer that lacks a FireWire port), the USB Bridge is promised to be able to act as a conduit. This would, in effect, turn the iPod into a digital wallet-type device.
The Belkin iPod Media Reader provides this functionality already, but is hampered by slow transfer rates that gobble up iPod battery life. The USB Bridge and iPod connector cable allows for the iPod to be powered by its external charger if desired. Plus, being able to transfer photos directly from a range of USB cameras or card readers certainly provides greater flexibility. We have our fingers crossed that transfer rates will be somewhat faster as well, though based on testing with other devices it's likely that any speed advantage the USB Bridge-iPod combo might have over the Belkin reader will be slight at best.
No USB 2.0 or FireWire version of the USB Bridge is planned at this time, says Delkin's CEO Martin Wood. The USB Bridge will ship in early June 2004 through Delkin photo retailers, and is available for purchase direct from Delkin for US$70.